Saturday, November 30, 2013


Ah, Djibouti. It’s long been the “butt” of many jokes for English speakers.  These jokes were usually placed at the  “bottom” of my joke list, though. However, I’m going to put this “behind” me, get it out of my system, and move on; I will do my best to look forward and not to the “rear.” 

Djibouti is one of four countries that make up the Horn of Africa, along with Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. The country itself is fairly small, slightly smaller than the US state of Massachusetts.  Djibouti lies on the Gulf of Aden and the southern entrance to the Red Sea. There are eight mountain ranges, the highest being Mousa Ali (which includes a volcano), and the entire country is covered by desert.  The climate is hot in the winter and hotter in the summer. The name “Djibouti” is named after the capital city of the same name. Although linguists aren’t exactly sure, but there is reason to believe Djibouti may be related to the Afar word gabouti, which is a doormat made of palm fibers, or possibly stemmed from “Land of Tehuti,” the Egyptian god of the moon.

Some historians believe Djibouti (and surrounding areas) is the place the ancient Egyptians called Punt (or Puntland), who was a major trading partner with Egypt at that time. (I wonder if people from Punt were called Punters. – Sorry, a little football joke.) This area was mostly inhabited with the Somali and Afar peoples.  The Ifat Sultinate is one of the major ancient kingdoms to reign in this region and of course there were several others afterwards.  In the mid-to-late 1800s, the French came in and set up their French administration in the capital city, later taking over and renaming the country French Somaliland (rather unoriginal, considering there was an Italian Somaliland and British Somaliland as well.) Several decades later in 1967, it was renamed again to French Territory of the Afars and Issas.  (Slightly wordy, it was at least more reflective of the original peoples). The people held a couple of referendums regarding their independence, but finally in 1977, Djibouti became its own country.  Although there was some political conflict that led to fighting starting in the early part of the 1990s, it had generally been resolved in the 2000s in an agreement of power.  Djibouti does hold the only US military base in sub-Saharan Africa, which is a key base in the assistance in the global watch on terrorism.    

The capital city of Djibouti City has about 600,000 people – roughly the size of Portland, Oregon.  This seaport is known for its sand beaches, which are major tourist spots.  The city is also known its many markets, many of which are open-air markets selling everything from fabrics, woven goods, and jewelry to fresh meats and vegetables and grains. Much of the culture and architecture is a mix of Somali, Arab, and French styles and traditions.  Soccer is pretty popular, and they have a stadium that holds many international sporting events. Djibouti City is also a financial hub for many up-and-coming businesses in all fields.

By far, Djibouti’s largest trade partners are neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia. Djibouti also refines about four million tons of salt from the Lake Assal region annually – which also happens to be the lowest point in the entire continent of Africa.  With the help of Chinese investment, they are looking to expand the salt industry.  They do have problems with high unemployment; some estimates put it around 50%.  Because of persistent problems with drought causing an unfavorable environment for growing, most of their food is imported from other countries.  This also causes the country to have a lot of long-term debt they have to deal with.

While Arabic and French are official languages, most people also speak Somali or Afar as a first language.  Different dialects of Arabic are also found spoken in Djibouti, mostly in immigrant populations, as well as other minority languages.

The vast majority of Djiboutians practice Islam – about 94% of the population. In fact, the Constitution of Djibouti specifically lists Islam as the state religion, with Sunni Muslims making up the largest group and non-denominational Muslims being the second.  The remaining 6% of the population are Christian – there is a small Catholic population overseen by the Diocese of Djibouti.

 I read that one of the common “pastimes” in Djibouti is qat chewing.  Qat (also spelled khat) is a medicinal plant, when chewed gives narcotic effects.  In fact, it’s banned in a lot of European countries (weirdly enough, not the UK).  It’s also banned in the US, but from what I could gather, it will be seized but not for the reasons you might think: it’s not seized as an illegal substance, but because “it’s labeling fails to bear adequate directions for use” according to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Sounds weird… So, while I may not be getting so local as to chew some qat, but I am looking forward to eating some Djiboutian food and learning more about a country that up until now has long just been relegated to geographical jokes.

 Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Well, my son finally turned five years old this week, and I turned in his application for kindergarten and the magnet school program for next year.  Hopefully, he’ll be accepted to the same school that his sister goes to, a Spanish-immersion language school where their math and science classes are taught in Spanish and the rest of the classes are taught in English.  I really love it. I wish I had those opportunities when I was in school. 

And it was also a busy week, because the rugbrød bread is now at the top of my list of “bread that takes the longest to make.”  I had to start the sourdough starter last week because it was supposed to sit for seven days (ok, mine sat for six).  I’ve never made a sourdough bread before: this one called for buttermilk, water, rye flour, whole wheat flour, and some salt to be mixed together and then sprinkled with course salt before its covered and put in a cool place (but not in the refrigerator) and forgot about.  Then today, I had to get up and start this much earlier than I normally do.  I mixed a bottle of Carlsberg beer, some honey, salt, water, yeast, rye flour, and the sour dough mix together.  Then I stirred in some cracked wheat (because I didn’t have cracked rye), some water, and some crushed sunflower seeds into it.  In Denmark, they have special rugbrød molds, but I’m just using a regular loaf pan.  I didn’t take out any to preserve as a starter, but I could have if I wanted to.  Since I didn’t do that, I had to use three loaf pans.  The recipe says to let this sit for six hours, but I’m hoping science can do its thing in five hours.  After that, it calls to bake it at 350º F for two hours, spraying it with water every half hour or so (of which I had to get kind of inventive since my husband took my spray bottle to the garage where it’s lost and presumed dead.  I improvised with a Hello Kitty soy sauce dispenser.).  Technically, to do this the right way, the bread is supposed to cool on its own for a couple of hours and then wrapped in plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator for a day before slicing. Obviously, I should’ve made this yesterday, and since I didn’t, I’m going to try to accelerate all of this cooling business.  Maybe I should give it the cold shoulder? (I did manage to put it in the refrigerator for a bit, and I think it was fine to cut.)

Hearty and perfect for cold weather -- it was 25 degrees colder in Indianapolis than in Copenhagen. 
The rugbrød is the basis of an open-faced sandwich called smørrebrød.  There are probably hundreds of types of smørrebrød from pickled herring to vegetarian styles.  The one I chose was called frikadeller.  It’s basically a meatball made from pork and veal, but I couldn’t find any veal, so I went with just the ground pork.  (Of course, I am shopping in the days before Thanksgiving, so some of the shelves are a little bare.)  The pork is mixed with a little onion, egg, some soda water, salt, flour, a little allspice, and pepper.  Unlike the baked meatballs that I made from Belarus, these meatballs are pan fried in butter and flattened slightly to resemble small patties. I think there was a little too much soda water because the first batch kept falling apart.  I added a little more flour, and really, even at that, they still turned out more like patties rather than slightly flattened meatballs. But regardless, the flavor was excellent. 

Yes, I ditched the veal, but these were really good.
And now it comes time to assemble the smørrebrød.  It starts out by spreading some Dijon mustard on a slice of the freshly made rugbrød (although I think I would prefer yellow mustard), then topping it with a couple of the frikadeller meatballs and some kind of garnish on top of the meatballs. I used a recipe called syltede agurker, which is Danish Pickled Cucumbers to put on top of it.  This recipe is 98.1% like a similar recipe my mother would often make in the summer.  It’s thin-sliced cucumbers, cider vinegar, water, sugar, salt, and pepper stirred together and refrigerated for a couple of hours.  Then it’s drained and sprinkled with dill weed.  I bought fresh dill for this because it was 99¢ for a bunch, but it’s a HUGE bunch, and I’ll never use it all.  Maybe I can find someone to pawn off some dill on. And maybe a loaf of rugbrød. 

Tastes like childhood, and the fresh dill just made my childhood even better. 
The bread was extremely hearty. And even though each ingredient is delicious, yet completely different from the others, when it was assembled, it all came together.  The reason I would’ve chosen yellow mustard over Dijon is that between the Dijon mustard and the vinegar cucumbers, it was a little too much bite.  But that was my only measly complaint.  Otherwise, it was the most wonderful thing I’ve eaten today.  And it was really filling.  One sandwich was plenty enough. I think this will make the best lunch tomorrow, and probably for the next couple of the days.  Of course, I chased this all down with a Carlsberg beer (but when I was at the liquor store, I found a dark rye ale called Rugbrød – it tasted something like Guinness -- I only bought it for the name). 

I suck at pouring beer into a glass since it was all foam.  So, I drank it straight from the bottle.
And at least this is a short workweek for Thanksgiving. It’s a common time to reflect on what you’re thankful for, and I suppose I’ve been thinking about it a little myself.  I’m thankful for so many things including my family and this blog, and my ability to think and read and write – it’s more than a lot of people have.

Mmmm. There are no words but mmm mmm. (Ok, that's also the sound I make with food in my mouth.) 

Up next: Djibouti

Saturday, November 23, 2013


The earliest known music in Denmark has been traced to the Bronze Age with the making of lurs.  A lur is a long tube-like instrument made from bronze, shaped similar to a sousaphone but much skinnier, and played by blowing into it like a horn.  It’s actually thought to be one of the earliest forms of many of the modern-day brass instruments. Music has been a very important part of Danish society, although most of the early music was centered after the Reformation, and later, Dieterich Buxtehude was one of the prominent organists and composers during the Baroque era.  Opera was later introduced from Italy and Germany during the early 1700s.  Friedrich Kuhlau was a composer whose music was used in one of the Danish national anthems. As a pianist, Kuhlau also brought Beethoven’s music to the people of Denmark. 

Carl Nielsen is often contributed as the most famous Danish composers of all time. I actually am embarrassed to say that even as someone who holds a degree in music, I was unaware of his name. I did listen to portions of his “Symphony No. 1” and “Symphony No. 4,” both of which I enjoyed. 

In contrast to this, folk music and folk dancing was something that was more on the “people’s” level.  It was something that everyone could join in and was often the centerpiece of community events.  Many of these dances took place in a farmhouse or in some other public building perhaps, and most of these dances were styled as chain dances or rotational dance so that it could maximize the number of dancers in crowded spaces.  And actually, during the 17th and 18th centuries, only officially appointed town musicians were allowed to play the music, so it was probably best to stay away from crazy ideas of unauthorized fiddle playing.  Denmark imported a couple of dances from Poland and other countries – one was the pols (a variant of the polka, a pair dance), and another was the minuet. And of course, the Danes came up with their own versions of other country’s dances, such as the waltz and square dances. People generally dressed in their Sunday best when it came time to coming to these dances, and nowadays there are many folk dancing societies around Copenhagen and other cities in Denmark, giving performances in traditional dress. Ballet and other forms of classical dance are also quite popular in Denmark as well. 

Starting in the 1920s, jazz became quite popular – and still is.  Even during the German occupation during WWII, jazz music was generally discourage, but some musicians kept performing anyway while others escaped to nearby Sweden to continue their music.  After the war, New Orleans/Delta style jazz and bebop from the US began infiltrating Danish jazz.  Jazz venues became destinations, such as Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen, and American jazz musicians began flocking to Copenhagen to perform.

Danish rock emerged in the 1960s and 1970s and drew much of its influence from the highly popular styles of American and British rock.   I have found several bands that I liked, mostly in the indie rock and folk rock genre, but also a couple hip-hop and R&B artists.  The first band that I found that I ABSOLUTELY love is The Raveonettes.  I went to the library and checked out the albums Lust Lust Lust (2008) and Observator (2012).  I actually thought Observator was a better album, but it was extremely short – only 9 songs. 

And of course, the drummer for Metallica is Lars Ulrich, born and raised in Denmark.  In fact, he was the first Dane to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  I added their Black Album to my playlist – it reminds me of my high school years. 

As a pianist myself, I really enjoyed listening to Agnes Obel’s album Philharmonics.  It’s acoustic and simplistic and at times resembles Celtic folk motifs. I may end up buying this album. It’s nice to listen to while I’m working.

One pop singer I discovered is Fallulah whose album The Black Cat Neighborhood is really catchy, and my daughter is absolutely in love with it. Probably because it has the word “cat” in it and she’s an 8-year-old girl. I tried to find this: my library doesn’t have it, and iTunes doesn’t have it, but I did find some used copies on Amazon for about $13.  I may also have to buy this.

I did find an artist who calls himself Burhan G. It’s kind of R&B, I think. More or less a mainstream American sound, the album does have a few catchy tracks. The same goes for another group call Nik & Jay. 

Up next: the food

Thursday, November 21, 2013


The early years in Denmark weren’t merely just exploring the open seas discovering new islands.  There were also artists. One of the largest known pieces of silver work is the Gundestrup cauldron found in a peat bog in the late 1800s. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t exactly seem typical of the styles from that area.  Other Norse art is found throughout what is now Denmark.  The rune writing and images carved on the large stones at Jelling are perhaps some of the best-known remnants of this era.  The earliest forms for paintings survive in the form of church frescos or murals, mostly dating back to Medieval and Renaissance times. It’s estimated that around 600 churches have murals that survive today – the largest concentration than any other country.

Denmark later looked to German and Swedish painters as well as French and Italian sculptors to learn their arts.  Some of the more famous painters of this period include Nikolaj Abraham Abildgaard, Christian August Lorentzen, and Jens Juel.  And likewise, Bertel Thorvaldsen is often considered one of the most famous sculptors. The Royal Danish Porcelain factor also got started around this time as well, and the Kosta Glasbruk glass company, an offshoot company, was also founded at the same time. Around the 19th century, Danish painters finally started making their own style , a “national” style, thus it was deemed as the Golden Age in Danish Painting.  Many painters emerged with this new style, with a more realistic style, utilizing the contrasts in shading. Portraits, landscapes, and pictures of people in everyday life were common subjects.

C.A. Lorentzen
As we stepped into the 20th century, Danish art aligned itself with other European styles and influences.  Many painters and other artists have made their work known all over the world, including many sculptors and large-scale artists. One of the most famous Danish architects is Jørn Utzon who designed the famous Sydney Opera House, which is included as a World Heritage Site.  Queen Margrethe II had a series of tapestries created depicting the history of Denmark from antiquity to present-day. The tapestries took a total of nine years to complete and are now located on display in the Great Hall of Christiansborg Palace. 

 And as mentioned above, the earliest forms of writing came in the form of runic writings etched in the sides of rocks, like the Jelling Stones. Once Christianization took place, runes were eventually replaced with Latin.  Most of the subjects written about at this time were mainly historical accounts, myths & legends, and ballads.  The 16th century bore the first Danish playwrights, and of course poetry is still alive and well. 18th century writing has a lot of its influences from abroad: poetry and drama were mainly stemmed from French and English standards, while some poets took on the styles of German poets. 

Denmark’s Golden Age (which lasted through the first half of the 1800s) mostly aligned itself with the corresponding Romantic period of literature.  Nikolaj Grundtvig is one author who is often considered one of the headliners of instilling a sense of nationalism.  And probably the most famous Danish writer ever is Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote many children’s stories and fairy tales.  Among his more well-known stories include “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Thumbelina.”  These stories are part of the canon of children’s literature all over the world.  My husband told me of a movie about Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye.  Søren Kierkegaard was a prominent philosopher and theologian.  The major focuses of his work are centered around making concrete human reality a priority over abstract thinking, as well as writing about the value of making personal choices and commitments.

20th century and contemporary literature embodies a diversity of styles. Karen Blixsen (who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen) is most famous for her memoir novel Out of Africa. It was also made into a movie in 1985 of the same name, starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep.  Most Danish authors do write in Danish; however, there are also a sizable number of books written in other languages such as English.  Mystery and crime thriller novels seem to be a popular genre for Danish writers today.

Up next: music and dance

Monday, November 18, 2013


There are many holidays in Denmark, some with days off and others that are not officially observed with a day off.  I’m listing in detail the ones where you do get a day off. I’ll just list in brief the others the ones where you still have to show up to work.

New Year’s Day (January 1):  According to the law, most shops and businesses close at 3pm on New Year’s Eve.  A lot of people start the evening off with an elaborate homemade meal, followed by a lot of alcohol. (Sounds like my kind of night.)  Traditionally the Queen gives a televised speech at 6pm on New Year’s Eve night, and the stroke of midnight is welcomed with champagne and kransekage (a type of almond ring cake), and of course, fireworks, and then probably more alcohol.

Maundy Thursday (varies, 3 days before Easter): According to the Bible, Maundy Thursday is the day during Holy Week in which traditions say this is the night in which Jesus offers Holy Communion to the Disciples during the Last Supper.  Some churches hold evening services followed by a meal together because of this. And the Danish word for this day literally translates out to “clean Thursday,” possibly stemmed from Jesus washing the feet of the disciples before the meal. 

Good Friday (varies, 2 days before Easter):  On this day, candles are not lit inside the churches due to the solemn nature of the day, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and death. A special service is held in the evening, although some hold their services at 3pm.  There is usually a reading of the Passion and choral singing. 

Easter Sunday (varies):  This is the day Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead.  Many homes have been decorated in green and yellow, and you’ll see Easter eggs everywhere.  Another Easter tradition that kids do is a series of teaser letters starting a few weeks before Easter. These are anonymously written with a verse as to the identity of the author, signed by only a series of dots, each for the number of letters in your name. After three letters, the recipient has to guess who the author is, and if you guess right, you get a chocolate Easter egg. Church services are attended in the morning followed by an elaborate meal for lunch.  This usually consists of chicken, lamb, fish, vegetable dishes, cheeses, and a lot of beer.

Easter Monday (varies):  This day is more or less a continuation of Easter. There are also special services in which readings from the Bible are a common way of retelling the stories of what happen after Jesus was resurrected. 

General Prayer Day (varies, 4th Friday after Easter): Also known as Great Prayer Day.  Basically, they took a lot of minor Christian feast days and other holidays and rolled them all into one day.  Many churches ring their bells on the eve of this day, and people will often eat a type of bread called varme hveder.  Some people used to walk the ramparts of the city, but nowadays most people walk along the waterfront areas. This is also a common day for churches to hold confirmations.

Labour Day (May 1):  Not everyone gets this day off; only the blue collar workers get to enjoy a free day.  A lot of people attend labor meetings to discuss the labor issued at hand. Labor unions will join other labor unions in marches celebrating major labor reforms in the past.

Ascension Day (varies, 39 days after Easter):  This holiday takes place 39 days after Easter and commemorates the Christian belief that this is the day which Jesus Christ ascended into heaven after rising from the dead.  Traditionally, this is also the day in which the Easter candle (also known as the Paschal candle) is extinguished.

Constitution Day (June 5):  This holiday goes back to 1849 and the signing of the Danish constitution establishing the country as a constitutional monarchy.  Some political meetings and functions may be held on this day, but generally, it’s not a huge holiday.  It also happens to be the same day as Father’s Day. 

Pentecost (varies, 7 weeks after Easter):  Pentecost is thought of as the foundation of the Church.  Because of the proverbial correlation between Jesus and the sun, many people stay up all night to wait for the sun to rise.  In some of the rural areas, it was a common time to whitewash all the buildings.  In recent times, large Whitsun procession through the streets of Copenhagen. 

Whit Monday (varies, day after Pentecost): Often considered the second day of Pentecost, it got its name from wearing white baptismal fonts on this day.  It’s a common time for people to be baptized. 

Christmas (December 24-26): The use of candles at Christmas goes back to pagan days and the early days after Christianization. In fact, they utilized and merged many pagan traditions in with Christian traditions.  And from the beginning, this has always been a holiday that is centered around family.  They do put up Christmas trees (a tradition borrowed from nearby Germany) and decorate their homes with paper decorations and make sweets for the entire month of December.  However, Danes have become friends with the Christmas “nisse,” a mythical old man who wears a grey sweater, grey pants, red stockings, and a red cap who will hand out good fortune in exchange for porridge.  (Hmm, I have some grits in my cabinet. Wonder if that works? And he sort of seems like an old professor I had in college.) Several other traditions, like mistletoe and Santa Claus, were introduced from other countries.  Of course gifts are exchanged, and there are many other smaller traditions like paper Christmas hearts, singing Christmas carols, the Christmas lunch featuring herring, and a lot of sweet and succulent and savory foods.

Now, here is a brief list of other holidays celebrated in Denmark:  Crown Princess Mary’s birthday (February 5), Valentine’s Day (February 14), Fastelavn (varies, 7 weeks before Easter), Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter), April Fool’s Day (April 1), Occupation of Denmark (April 9), Queen Margrethe II’s birthday (April 16), Princess Benedikte’s birthday (April 29), Liberation Day (May 5), Crown Prince Frederik’s birthday (May 26), Prince Joaquim’s birthday (June 7), Prince Henrik’s birthday (June 11), Day of Valdemar and Reunion Day (June 15), Saint John’s Eve (June 23), Halloween (October 31), Saint Martin’s Eve (November 10), Saint Lucy’s Day (December 13). 

Up next: art and literature

Sunday, November 17, 2013


It’s the land that brought us both Vikings and Legos. My mom and I have discussed this at length and decided this conversation had to have taken place (in fact, this is the actual transcript): “[Viking spokesman:] I know most people think the Vikings are somewhat defunct – what little they know, right? – but I have this idea. Why rape and pillage anymore? That was so 10th century.  We’ll change our tactics: we’ll attack from inside homes. We’ve created this incredibly heinous weapon called the Lego. It looks just like a child’s toy – parents will be scrambling to buy as many of these possible, making us a lot of money. Kids will drop these all over the floor in their slobovian ways, and the adults will step on them and practically die in minutes. Kids are immune to the diabolical powers Legos hold. It’s practically perfect in our Danish mastery of taking over the world, one brick at a time.” Ok, maybe it might not be EXACTLY that way, but it sure seemed plausible to me.

Denmark lies on a peninsula just north of Germany in the North Sea and includes 407 islands (of which only 70 are inhabitable). Denmark also lays claim to the island of Greenland (off the coast of Canada) and the Faroe Islands, which are located between Scotland and Iceland.  Although it’s not exactly clear, the word Denmark is thought to be derived from the word “Dani” which refers to a group of people who were indigenous to the area, and the word “mark” which may refer to woodland or a border land. Denmark is also one of the handful of countries that border only one country.  Technically, it shares a land border with just Germany, but it is also connected by Sweden by bridge. 

As far as its early history goes, the people are ethnically related to the Germanic peoples from the south and Scandinavians to the north, and were invaded (and ethnically cleansed) by the Anglo-Saxons. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, some Danes (as well as some Swedes and Norwegians) were known as Vikings, who were ruthless, invading, pillaging, and generally taking over wherever they wanted.  They’re often depicted wearing helmets with horns coming from the sides in large boats with highly ornamented figurehead on the bow. (Just watch "How to Train Your Dragon.") Although they weren’t Danish, two of the most famous Vikings were Eric the Red and his son Leif Ericksson.  The Vikings were great explorers, credited with discovering Iceland and the eastern shores of Canada (especially Newfoundland). One of the early kings of Denmark and Norway is Harald Bluetooth. In fact, the Bluetooth icon is actually an overlay of the Nordic runes for the letters H and B (his initials).  Too bad I can never get a bluetooth connection to actually connect. It’s more like blurtooth.  It’s rumored that it was Harald Bluetooth who officially wrote the name “Denmark” on jelling stones, which are giant stones near the city of Jelling that have rune writing on them.  In following the footsteps of the Dutch East India Company, the Danes laid its own claims to regions in India as well (specifically the region of Tranquebar) and the islands known as the US Virgin Islands, known then as the Danish West Indies.  During WWII, Denmark signed a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, which they invaded Denmark anyway.  Nowadays, Denmark generally does peacekeeping missions in various countries. 

The capital city is Copenhagen, a city of about 1.9 million (about my size of city).  The name Copenhagen means “chapman’s haven” or “merchant’s harbour.”  It’s located mostly on the eastern shore of the island of Zealand and partly on the island of Amager. It’s also right across the sound from the Swedish cities of Malmö and Landskrona.  I’ve always imagined that it was super cold there, but because the island is situated where it is, it doesn’t normally get below 10º F in the winter and average temps in the summer are between 60-70ºF. I’d say this is one more reason why I should move here. It’s a world-class city with museums, universities, nightlife, sports teams, and of course, beer. Copenhagen is also home to one of the world’s best restaurants, Noma, ranked number one for three years in a row by Restaurant magazine. 

Denmark enjoys a fairly strong economy.  They have the lowest level of income inequality in the world and the highest minimum wage in the world as well (I read it’s roughly around $19/hr). And they’re really into green/clean energy and energy efficiency.  Denmark has utilized wind energy for a long time and is working on integrating this wind energy with the national grid. Right now, they’re also working on creating and integrating the electric plug-in car technology.  They also huge on being a “cycling society” – getting rid of so many cars on the roads daily and modifying their infrastructure to create bike lanes. 

The vast majority of the people speak Danish, which is related to Norwegian, Finnish, Swedish, and German.  Because the people of the Faroe Islands also speak Faroese and the people of Greenland also speak Greenlandic, these are also official languages as well.  There are quite a few German speakers near the German border, which makes German one of the more popular foreign languages to learn, along with English.

The vast majority – almost 80% of the population – are Lutheran.  Of course, Lutheranism is the established religion of Denmark.  There is a very small Muslim population, and recently there is a “new” religion called Forn Sithr which is basically centered around pre-Christian Norse paganism. 

In some ways, Denmark has long been a progressive country and is a country of many firsts and number-ones.  It was the first country to legalize pornography in 1969 as well as establish gender-neutral marriages twenty years later.  They also excel in the sciences, giving the world the famous physicist Neils Bohr and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.  Adopted in 1219, the Danish flag is the oldest flag in the world that is still used by an independent country.  There have been several studies which rank Denmark as one of the happiest countries in the world. The Danish royal family can trace its uninterrupted line all the way back to 934AD – the oldest royal family line in Europe.  The architect for the famous Sydney Opera House in Australia was designed by a Danish guy (Jørn Utzen), which was recognized as a World Heritage Site, and he was only the second recipient who was still living at the time of the induction. The longest suspension bridge in Europe (called the Great Belt Fixed Link) links the Danish islands of Zealand and Funen, making it also the third-longest in the world.  And Denmark has the oldest and second-oldest amusement parks in the world -- the Dyrehavsbakken opened in 1583 and Tivoli Gardens opened in 1843.  I’m very excited to cook food from Denmark, listen to my Spotify playlists for Denmark, and discover other really cool things about this country.  In fact, I’m going to go make my sourdough starter for my rugbrød right now.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, November 10, 2013


So, we finally made it to my cooking day.  It was a long week, but I survived it, and I’m definitely hungry for some good food. I thought it was moderately funny in an allegorical sort of sense that when I told people I was cooking food from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, people sort of made a face like I was just invited to my own funeral. However, when I described what I was making, all of a sudden, they thought it sounded pretty good.  Maybe that’s what I’m here for, maybe this is the point of this blog: dispelling culinary stereotypes.

Gooey, vanilla-y fried goodness. There is definitely room for tweaking the recipe. 
I started out with my “bread” – a type of vanilla-flavored doughnut hole, more or less. I found this recipe from a blog of a woman who visited the DRC and was introduced to what was called makité.  She was given the recipe, but she had a lot of trouble recreating it. It just never turned out the way she had it when she was there. Sometimes I think your environment has a lot to do with whether bread and bread products turn out: the humidity in the air, temperature, quality of ingredients, etc. I’m sure my store-bought commercially packaged products and Indiana-in-November weather is the prime environment to recreate a recipe from tropical Africa. But I’m hell-bent on trying it as well. I mixed half whole wheat white flour and half cassava flour (also called tapioca or yuca flour – I still had some from making Costa Rican yuca bread) and yeast.  Then I added in the sugar, salt, and I added a half-package of French vanilla pudding powder. I have a feeling I used too much pudding, and I accidentally picked French vanilla instead of regular vanilla. But we’ll see how this turns out, and because of this, I left out the vanilla extract. Then I added enough warm water to bring it to the consistency of a “thick pancake batter,” then I covered it and let it sit for two hours. It was still too runny to form into balls; I kept adding a bit of flour on top of it, patting it with the back of the spoon and then stirring.  I had to do that several times – like I was kneading bread dough. I did manage to thicken it up a bit, enough to form a ball.  However, I think my oil was too high and I used too much pudding mix.  If the outsides burned, the insides were done. If it looks perfect on the outside, the insides were still a little runny, like pudding. So, I don’t know. It tasted good though. Like vanilla pudding balls. Maybe I should try coffee creamer next time?

Who doesn't love sweet potatoes this time of year? Especially marinated in brandy and beer battered.
The next thing I did was the side dish: Sweet Potatoes Congolese.  First I put the sweet potatoes in boiling water for about five minutes (which is called blanching). I took them out, peeled them, and sliced them. Then I made a marinade of honey, brandy, and some lemon zest, and let it marinate for about 30-40 minutes (the recipe calls for 60 minutes). Afterwards, I made a batter of flour and light beer (I chose one of my favorite Belgian beers, Stella Artois). I tried to save time and mess by dumping the batter over the potatoes in the bowl (draining the marinade first of course) and then frying them. Some were fried way more than others, and some probably needed to be left in a bit longer (the trials and tribulations of a multitasker), but otherwise I thought they were pretty good.

The best part of the meal. And for my first time using sorrel, I really liked it. 
The main entrée is called Mboto à l’oseille, or fish with sorrel. I went with tilapia since I know my family likes it – it doesn’t have quite so much a “fishy” taste to it. I fried the fish on both sides and then took it out and set it aside. It doesn’t normally take that long to cook fish anyway.  Then in the same skillet, I fried the onion and garlic and added the chili pepper (I’m actually using a jalapeño), diced tomatoes and some tomato paste with a little water to smooth the sauce out. After this started to boil, I put the fish back in and added in the sorrel leaves. I actually thought sorrel was a leafy green, like kale or chard or something, but it’s more of an herb.  But to be fair, it is a leaf similar to basil.  So, I wasn’t completely out there.  I also added in a bay leaf and a little salt and pepper and nutmeg, allowing everything to simmer for about 15 minutes or so.  This was absolutely wonderful. I served this on a bed of couscous instead of rice, because I sort of forgot about the rice until the end, and it only takes 5 minutes to make some instant couscous.  I loved this so much.  Too bad it’s sort of socially unacceptable to heat up fish in the office lunchroom, but I may do it anyway.  If I have to deal with people constantly burning popcorn, then they can deal with my Congolese fish.

Perfect meal for a cool day, perfect as a comfort food. 
I learned so much about this country.  In fact, it made the news just in the past couple of days, although you probably wouldn’t know about it in mainstream American news. (I saw it on a Wikipedia News blurb and got the details on BBC.) The M23 rebel forces finally “surrendered,” giving a relief to the Congolese Army and the Congolese people, especially in the Kiva region.  Hopefully, they can renegotiate peace deals, and the people can enjoy some relative peace for a while as they try to rebuild their communities.  Even if the civil war ended with this move, families have been shattered and any semblance of normal lives will take a long time to bring back. It’s a complicated and complex situation essentially going back a couple hundred years.  But it’s not impossible to implement changes. Perhaps in my lifetime, perhaps in my children’s, it’ll happen one day.  I’m sure of it.  

Up next: Denmark

Friday, November 8, 2013


The Congolese refer to their music simply as ndule, the Lingala word for music. In fact, most of their own music is sung in Lingala with some French mixed in as well. After WWII, music in the DRC became more or less a fusion of African folk music mixed with Latin music, especially rumba coming out of Cuba. They adapted their music to include Latin instrumentation and styles.  The Belgians actually helped by bringing in electric guitars and equipment necessary to start recording music. The first recording studios were in Kinshasa.  Besides Cuban rumba, Congolese musicians were also influenced by American swing music and jazz, cabaret music from France, and a style known as highlife coming out of Ghana.  This new blend of Congolese became known as soukous and is highly influential in other areas around central Africa.

African jazz was super popular during the middle part of the 20th century, and many jazz bands popped up all over the country, especially in the large cities. There were a lot of musicians who jumped back and forth between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. 

Soukous more or less became the base for almost all of the other styles of music in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  And then there were offshoots: rumba-rock, n’dombolo, etc. One band named Zaiko Langa Langa emerged and changed the genre to include a more smoother, pop-like sound, which many other bands and music groups followed as well. The term soukous has now become more of a catch-all term for all Congolese music.

And essentially, all Congolese music is dance music. Dance is so integrated with music that it’s hard to separate the two. Dance styles are generally named after the music it’s danced to. Different ethnic groups had their own dances and musical styles used to tell stories and act as part of special ceremonies.  The clip above is a great piece I found about Congolese dance today, combining tradition dance styles and ballet, telling the most pressing stories of women and other important issues at hand. 

Two super huge musicians that shaped Congolese music as we know it are definitely in my Spotify playlist. The first one is Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabasele. I can definitely tell the Cuban influence on his music, but there’s also definitely an African quality to the guitar riffs.  There are times that I’ve wondered if I accidently switched over to my Cuban playlist instead. I love this music. I have the album Le Grande Kallé: His Life, His Music in my playlist.

 Another musician I found is Papa Wemba.  When I pulled up the photo of movie cover to La Vie est Belle, the DRC’s first major film produced (I mentioned it in my last post), it listed Papa Wemba on the cover – he did much of the music on the soundtrack.  I really like his music as well, and again, I can sense some of the Latin flavor in his music in regards to instrumentation and rhythms.  I liked the album Best of Papa Wemba: Cantos Essentials. 

 Another album in my playlist is Zaiko Langa Langa’s Tout Choc. It’s upbeat, and really, who doesn’t love a little cowbell?  It almost makes me think of outdoor cabanas, eating some kind of spicy, charred meat with a side of some fried plantains, drinking cold beer, taking in the warm breezes, and listening to this music for hours.

Up next: the food